Seven Days in Spain

If you read my Norway travelogue, you may recall that my wife Janet is a professor and that this year she’s on sabbatical, which means that she’s been free to accept invitations to give papers at conferences around the world. That’s why we were in Norway, because the conference was in Oslo. I’m the lucky “plus one,” and in October as such I accompanied Janet to Spain. This time the conference was in Barcelona.

In planning the trip we tried to balance the distance factor—we didn’t want to go 8,000 miles for only a few days—with the “haven’t we been vacationing a lot lately” factor and not use the invitation to Barcelona as an excuse for another long vacation. We settled on nine days, which would give us about seven days in Spain after netting out the travel time. We flew over Monday night, Oct. 23, arriving Tuesday afternoon, and returned Wednesday morning, Nov. 1.

October 2017 was exciting in Barcelona. No kidding. A couple of weeks before we arrived the Catalan government had defied the Spanish government and conducted an election on whether to declare independence. Ninety percent of the votes were “Sí,” but only 43% of voters voted.

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The no-shows and polls showed a divided populace, but nonetheless, and while we were there, the Catalan parliament voted for independence. This triggered the government in Madrid to invoke Article 155 of their constitution and take over the regional government. The government threatened the Catalan leaders with prosecution for treason, and as we were leaving Spain Carles Puigdemont, the deposed Catalan leader, had fled for Belgium, saying he would not return unless he believed he would get a fair trial.

If the Catalan crisis provided the current events context for our trip, the historical context was provided by George Orwell’s chronicle of the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia, which I had begun reading before I’d left Santa Monica and finished in Barcelona. Orwell described a violent and desperate time. Today Barcelona is cosmopolitan, prosperous and peaceful. It’s everyone’s favorite city, inundated by eight million tourists a year. It is rather different from the city Orwell chronicled, but as usual when you read Orwell, every word seemed relevant.

Fortunately, we had two other, very-much-alive, sources for what had been going on in Barcelona. Two friends from Santa Monica, Mike and Lou, had spent most of the previous month there in a long and long overdue vacation. They hadn’t quite gone native, but they had been there during the voting and had been eyewitnesses to the attempts of the national government to stop the vote. We met Mike and Lou for dinner the night we arrived (Tues., Oct. 23). We were staying in a hotel near the university (where Janet’s conference would take place) on the Ronda Sant Antoni. This was near where Mike and Lou were staying, and they chose a great nearby place for dinner: the Moritz brewery. Moritz is a Barcelona brewer that began brewing in a brewery on Ronda Sant Antoni in the mid-19th century. In recent years they hired architect Jean Nouvel to turn the upper floors of the brewery into a bistro, while keeping the brewing going downstairs. We had a great meal of fried fish and draft beer (brewed on the premises).

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Our friends Mike and Lou at the Moritz brewery restaurant

The next day, Wednesday, would be Janet’s only day of tourism in Barcelona before the conference began on Thursday. We’d made plans to do two things: visit Gaudí’s La Sagrada Familia in the morning and the Picasso Museum in the afternoon.

We’d last been in Barcelona in 2016, and missed going inside La Sagrada because we hadn’t known enough to buy a ticket in advance. We’d been there in 2008, and gone up in the towers, but at that time the nave had not been completed and wasn’t open to the public. This time we made sure to get tickets in advance (which is easily done on-line).

La Sagrada is not a cathedral, but it’s cathedral sized. The interior is beautiful, even better conceived (IMO) than the outside. The metaphor inside is of a forest, with “trunks” of trees holding up a ceiling of branches. Colored stone is used to great effect, as are the colored windows. In the center, there are four massive but elegant pillars, one for each of the evangelists, rising above the altar. These pillars, it’s hard to believe, will support the tallest of Gaudí’s 18 towers—the “Jesus” tower that will rise 560 feet. Here are some pictures.

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All four sides of the church are now nearly completed. My reaction to them is that I hope the new stone that the architects are using will weather as well as the old stone. Otherwise, the exterior is going to look a lot like a Disneyland version of a church.

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After La Sagrada, we made our way to the Picasso Museum by way of the Metro. The museum is in the medieval part of town, the Barri Gòtic, and on the way we stopped in a little bar for a couple of tapas. I don’t have any pictures from the museum, because they don’t allow photographs, but just as everyone loves Barcelona, everyone loves Picasso, and the young Picasso is particularly endearing. The museum has mostly work from when he was young and living in Barcelona and then from when he was old (notably his paintings based on Velázquez’s Las Meninas and ceramics). In both cases, young and old Picasso, you have to say to yourself, “Wow, I would like to have known this guy.”

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Barri Gòtic street

The next day (Thurs., Oct. 26 if you’re keeping track) I was on my own as Janet had her conference to go to. (One note on that: when Janet and her colleagues arrived at the university for the conference, there was a student demonstration going on about the independence issue; that was as close as either of us came to any demonstrations for or against independence.) I headed straight up to Gaudí’s Park Güell. As with La Sagrada, to enter the “monumental zone” of the park one now needs a ticket, and my ticket was for 10:00. I decided to go earlier so that I could start at the top of the park and work my way down to the monuments. This entails taking the Metro to the Vallcarca stop and then walking up and up many stairway-streets to get to park entrances high above the city. The rewards are great views. Here are two pix: the color is from my iPhone, and the black and white one is from my 35mm camera. In both you can see La Sagrada with its telltale cranes.

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One reason I wanted to go to Park Güell this year was since the last time, in 2016, that I’d been in Barcelona I’d digitized negatives from pictures I’d taken from my first trip to Spain, in 1973, and I wanted to see if I could take pictures from the same angles now to compare. Here are some of the 1973 pictures and new ones from my iPhone.

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A lot more people now.

From Park Güell I took a long walk, ending up at La Boqueria Market, the famous one off La Rambla. I try not to take too many food photographs, or at least I try not to show them to strangers, but food is an important part of culture, and the lunch I had at a counter in the market, of a whole grilled fish, with a glass of the local Moritz beer, says as much about Barcelona, or as much about Mediterranean culture, as a museum.

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While I was in the market, the Catalan parliament was meeting, and TV screens around the market were broadcasting news reports. I saw this screen, and photographed it, because it seemed to show the big news that Puigdemont had decided to defuse the crisis by dissolving parliament and calling new elections. After all, that’s what it says. But that is not what happened. Puigdemont did not call for new elections, and the next day the parliament passed Catalonia’s declaration of independence. Then Madrid invoked Article 155, Puigdemont and other Catalan leaders fled, and the air seemed to escape from the independence balloon. At least for the present….

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I then embarked on a bit of historical tourism. As I mentioned above, to prepare myself for this visit to Barcelona I read George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. Whenever I read Orwell it always seems like he’s writing for us today. Reading about his half-year in 1937 spent first fighting fascists in the trenches in Aragon (northwest of Catalonia) and then escaping arrest by a loyalist government doing the bidding of Stalin, was strangely helpful in understanding what was going on today in Catalonia.

In January 1937 Orwell joined a militia organized by the POUM, an anti-Stalinist Marxist party. POUM had joined with the Anarchists in a proletarian revolution that had taken place in 1936, after Franco’s fascist coup and revolt, and were now part of the government and resistance against Franco. In the winter of 1937 Orwell served in the (cold and miserable) trenches, in the front opposite the fascist-held town of Huesca (more on Huesca later) until late April, when he got a leave and went to Barcelona. His wife was there, staying in the Hotel Continental on La Rambla. Orwell’s leave was ill-timed: it put him in the middle of the “May Days” of Catalonia, violence that took place in Barcelona in the first week of May 1937 between, on one side, the Spanish Republic and the Catalan government, supported by the Communist Party (allied with the Soviet Union, which was the major source of arms for the government and thus had great influence), and, on the other, the Anarchist labor unions and the anti-Stalinist Left.

This was the civil war within the Civil War that eventually doomed the Spanish Republic. While Orwell found himself on the side of, and was loyal to, the Anarchists and POUM, he recognized that the strategy of the Republic (and Communists) made more sense. Their view was that defeating Franco was the first priority, and revolution could come later. The Anarchists and POUM said revolution had to come at the same time. Unfortunately the motives of the Communists also reflected Stalin’s preoccupation with annihilating the influence of Trotsky—the Kremlin considered the POUM to be Trotskyite—and of course there was never any love lost between Communists and Anarchists. (Meanwhile, today in America’s Trump era the lessons about the Left consuming itself with doctrinal conflicts while the Right wins need to be remembered.)

During the May Days a detachment of guards from the government took over a café on La Rambla called Café Moka that was next to the POUM headquarters in the Hotel Rivoli. In turn Orwell was assigned by the POUM to take a position with a group of militiamen on the roof of the Royal Academy of Sciences and Arts across La Rambla from Café Moka. Orwell referred to the building by the name of a theater in its ground floor, the Poliorama. The government guards and Orwell and his fellow militiamen warily observed each other—both sides agreed that they would fire only if fired upon, and shared beers. Orwell wrote that he spent the time he was on the roof reading Penguin paperbacks.

That afternoon I couldn’t resist retracing Orwell’s steps. Everything is still there. Here are picture of the Rivoli Hotel and Café Moka, which have been remodeled:

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And here’s the Poliorama theater, followed by a shot looking up at the roof where Orwell was positioned to look down on the guards in Café Moka.

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Poliorama Theater in the Royal Academy of Sciences and Arts

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Looking up at the Royal Academy roof, where Orwell read Penguins and watched the guards sent to watch POUM headquarters.

Orwell also describes fire coming from an “octagonal” tower, namely the Church of Santa Maria del Pi; here’s a picture of the tower today, as it terminates a vista between two modern buildings:

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The May Days conflict ultimately, if temporarily, was resolved, and Orwell returned to the front, where he was wounded seriously. (He was shot in the neck; a doctor told him that if the bullet had been one millimeter to one side, he would have died.) After recuperating in Barcelona he was released from hospital just in time for a much more serious crackdown on the Anarchists and the POUM. When he reached the lobby of the Hotel Continental to rejoin his wife, she immediately told him to vanish, and he went into hiding. For several days and nights Orwell was on the run, until with the help of the British consul he was able to get his papers in order to escape to France.

The Hotel Continental still exists, although, according to desk staff I spoke to there, it is much smaller than it was in the 30s. Here’s a picture of its entrance on La Rambla.

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In the hotel lobby, there is a cabinet displaying a copy of Homage to Catalonia opened to a page where Orwell writes about the hotel.

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It was wonderful to commune with Orwell, and mind-blowing to try to imagine today what La Rambla was like in such desperate times. A time when La Boqueria was not a huge tourist magnet, but simply a market where Orwell bought a hunk of cheese that kept him going for a few days.

I read that since the 1992 Olympics the number of tourists who visit Barcelona each year has grown from one million to eight million. Surely it’s a good thing that tens of millions of people move around Europe in peace today, but the stresses on cities that absorb the love are real. Here’s a poster I photographed in a neighborhood between La Rambla and the university.

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That evening Janet was going out to dinner with colleagues from the conference, and I was on my own. I decided to go back to the Moritz brewery restaurant. On the menu there is a section called “The Great Brewery Classics” with “recipes from all over Europe that have become part of beer-drinking lore and legend.” The first item is “Cockerel a la Moritz with chips, an “FMB specialty” described as “Poussin roasted in a tin of Moritz. Recipe by Montse Guillén and FoodCulturalMuseum.” That sounded interesting, and somehow Catalan, and so I ordered it.

What did I get, but one of my favorites: beer can chicken!

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Which made me consider the limits of localism. Catalans celebrate their culture, while in the U.S., Louisianans take credit for beer can chicken. Today aren’t we all globalized?

The next day was Friday, Oct. 27, and I had nothing scheduled except a lunch with the only two Catalans I know, Andreu and Rocio, whom I met through a friend in L.A. I was looking forward to hearing some insights from them about the political situation.

But I wasn’t meeting them until 1:30, and I spent the morning wandering around town. My path took me back to La Rambla and it was on a street just off La Rambla that I lucked into a sight to see that I should have had on my list in the first place, namely the Palau Güell. The Palau is the urban mansion that the young Antoni Gaudí designed for Eusebi Güell, the industrialist and developer who became Gaudí’s great patron. The palace was restored and opened to the public in 2011. Here is a slideshow of a few photographs from a spectacular place.

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After the Palau, I rushed over to the restaurant that Andreu and Rocio had chosen, Casa Leonardo. I had told them I wanted to eat Catalan food, and they picked Casa Leonardo not only because it served traditional food, but also because it was a place where, over the decades, writers and artists had hung out. It was in a neighborhood near the port with many Islamic immigrants—many men and women in traditional Islamic clothing, and halal butchers and grocery stores on every block. I have no idea what immigrants in Barcelona think about Catalan nationalism.

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Andreu and Rocio did have views about the independence question. Andreu’s family has been Catalan forever. He said he voted for Puigdemont’s party, the conservative pro-independence party. Rocio’s family only moved to Catalonia in 1940, from the Cantabrigia region on the north coast of Spain. She had not voted for a separatist party, but she said she was now ready to leave Spain after Madrid’s reaction to the referendum on independence. However, what I found most interesting was that they both said that “no one” (or, at least not people they knew) had voted for the independence parties with the expectation that they would in fact declare independence. The idea was to strengthen the position of the regional government in negotiating more autonomy. They thought that Puigdemont had overplayed his hand, and they said he had done so because of pressure from the left-wing separatist party. Catalonia was not going to become independent simply because it wanted to. Now it was all a mess.

I can’t say I’m sympathetic to the Catalans who want independence, notwithstanding that I admire them and their history. As a citizen of the U.S., I am steeped in the virtues of a federal system and somewhat constitutionally (in both senses of the word) allergic to nationalism based on ethnicity, or language, or self-defined notions of “culture.” The Mediterranean cultures seem similar to me; although as a blundering American I surely miss the subtleties. I don’t believe the world needs to have more countries.

However, when I got back home I did some reading that put the Catalan case in perspective. I hadn’t seen anything about this in the U.S. press (not that I can claim to have followed the story exhaustively), but from my new reading I learned that in 2006 the Catalans had negotiated broader autonomy with the socialist government then in power in Madrid. But in 2010 the Supreme Court of Spain invalidated much of the deal. Now the conservatives are in power in Madrid, and they don’t want to make a new deal that would give the Catalans more autonomy and pass muster constitutionally. If I were a Catalan, I’d be frustrated, too.

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Another Barri Gotic street (showing 800 years of change?)

The next morning, Saturday the 28th, Janet and I picked up a rental car and started a drive across northern Spain. We had four more days in Spain, and had made plans to meet friends of ours in Bilbao. This was one of those serendipitous things, where we found out after we’d made our travel plans, but didn’t know what we were going to do with those four days, that these friends would also be in Spain. Not only that, but these friends were Stefanos Polyzoides and Elizabeth Moule, two of the best and most knowledgeable urbanists and architects in, dare I say it, the world. I expected not only to have a lot of fun, but also to learn a lot about the cities, Bilbao and San Sebastián, where we’d be spending time with them.

Our route across the foothills of the Pyrenees also allowed for more George Orwell memorializing. In the winter of 1937 Orwell was in a POUM militia unit in the trenches opposite the town of Huesca, which the fascists held. The slogan of the Republic was, “tomorrow we’ll have coffee in Huesca;” Orwell, in Homage to Catalonia, ruefully expresses the hope that someday he’ll have coffee in Huesca.

As it happened, our visit to Huesca was something of a modern touristic disaster. In our car we followed Google Maps directions to the town’s cathedral located way up in the medieval center of the town, which turned out to be a monumental mistake, since there is no parking there and naturally we were ascending by way of narrow and twisting medieval streets. We kept going and descended more medieval streets to a level that must have been the 19th century expansion of the town, complete with a long plaza, where we found a place to park (which turned out to be a mistake, because I got a parking ticket for reasons I could not figure out). There we had lunch, and yes, there I had a coffee in Huesca.

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Homage to Orwell and to the Republic: me having coffee in Huesca

From Huesca we drove to Bilbao. There we were going to meet Stefanos for a special experience: attending a soccer game at San Mames, Bilbao’s new, urban-core-adjacent stadium. Stefanos is a fan of FC-Barcelona, known as Barça, perhaps the most beloved fútbol team in the world. (Stefanos gets his devotion to the team “honestly,” as he once lived in Barcelona.) Stefanos was spending a few weeks in Spain on various types of business, and had carefully scheduled his travels so that he could take in a couple of Barça games, including the one in Bilbao. When we joined the Polyzoides-Moule expedition, we naturally went on-line and got tickets ourselves. (Liz, unfortunately, was flying into Bilbao from Italy the next day, and so she missed the game.)

Getting into the hotel in Bilbao was a little adventure. As we arrived, following Google Maps’ directions, we found the entrance to the hotel blocked by a huge bus and a crowd of people surrounding it. The bus said “FCB” on the back: it was the team bus for Barça. The team was staying at the hotel and was about to head to the stadium. We had to circle the block a couple of times before finding out what to do with our car, so that we could check in. After checking in Janet and I took a cab to the stadium, arriving just as the game began. Stefanos was already there. The stadium is directly accessible to the downtown grid of streets, not separated by a parking lot. Here’s a picture showing the scene as we approached.

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Arriving at the Bilbao stadium on foot

I recently experimented with walking to Dodger Stadium from Chinatown. That experiment will someday be the subject of another blog, but in the meantime, here’s a picture showing the comparable approach.

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Arriving at Dodger Stadium on foot.

The game was tremendous fun. The Bilbao team played tough, but they were (and their fans knew it) ultimately outclassed by Barça, with its world-class players exemplified by Argentinean Lionel Messi. Messi scored a goal about halfway through the game, but nonetheless it was a hard fought 1-0 contest, with Bilbao making many strong attacks on goal, until Barça sealed the victory with a second goal only a minute or so before time ran out. Here’s a picture of the Barça attack just before Messi scored his goal.

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After the game, around 11:00, Stefanos, Janet and I wandered into the city on the way back to our hotel. We hadn’t eaten dinner, and late at night is when Spanish restaurants start filling up. We found a wonderful, traditional place, La Cocina de María Antonia, on the main east-west street a block or so from the stadium. The Basque country is considered the heart of gastronomy in Spain, with the best traditional food and the most innovative chefs, and this restaurant was a great start. I immediately liked it because there was a long table where people were eating family style. It was kind of a bistro, very much on the traditional side. I had a sirloin steak (un solomilo) that was among the best steaks I’ve ever eaten.

Next morning, Sunday, Oct. 29, Janet and walked around the hotel’s neighborhood, which was in the center of the 19th century expansion of Bilbao. After some looking (it must be a neighborhood where folks like to sleep late on Sundays) we found a bar open for coffee and pastries. After that we walked across the center of town to meet Stefanos and Liz (who was arriving that morning from Italy where she’d been working on a project there with the American Academy) and some of their Bilbao friends and colleagues for a tapas lunch.

It was kind of coincidence, but one reason we were meeting Stefanos and Liz in Bilbao is that Stefanos is working on a project to study 19th century urban expansion in Spain. What he told us was that in the 19th century, with population increasing because of industrialization, scores of Spanish cities adopted formal plans to expand beyond their medieval centers. (As was the case in Oslo, too.) The most famous of these plans is Cerda’s for Barcelona, but the contrast between narrow medieval streets, which were themselves often (but not in Bilbao) corruptions of Roman urban grids, and the expansive grids of boulevards, avenues and streets emanating from them, is evident in cities all over Spain, including Bilbao.

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In Bilbao the division is clear. The old city, the Casco Viejo, is on the right bank of the river and is built around seven closely-spaced narrow streets emanating from the river (Las Siete Callesˆ—on the map they are right under the “Bilboko Donejakue katedrala”). The railroad station is on the other side of the river, and the new city, El Ensanche (literally, the “enlargement”), extends from the tracks and fills in the great bend the river makes. As you can see the streets are straighter (not that the Siete Calles aren’t straight) and the blocks are bigger, and there are grand boulevards emanating from a central oval.

One thing about those 19th century planners, they either loved the convenience of diagonal boulevards for transportation purposes, or for the opportunities for terminated vistas they create, or both (probably). Here’s a picture that shows, for better or for worse, the varieties of architecture that can sprout on a grid in a century or so. Massively terminating the vista is César Pelli’s Iberdrola Tower (completed in 2012 on formerly industrial land between the formal 19th century grid and the river), but the closer buildings at street level (this is at the San José Plaza) are worth looking at, too. Moving around the intersection from right to left, on the right is a traditional pre-modernism bank of buildings, then there’s the church (Iglesia de San José), a circa-1900 pastiche of styles, mostly neo-gothic, and across the street from the church is a mid-century building that hasn’t, to be kind, aged well either in terms of its materials or its style (and which happens to contain offices of the UGT, the socialist labor federation).

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The continued vitality of these neighborhoods and districts more than a century after they were laid out and subdivided, regardless of architecture and particularly after the advent of the automobile, shows that it’s easier to adapt a good grid to the car and maintain a good urban environment than it is to design a city to accommodate cars that will be serviceable for any kind of living other than one that is automotive. It’s entropy: once you dissipate human energies over a wider landscape to accommodate cars, those energies cannot be harnessed again to make something more synergistic. “Suburban retrofits” are beyond difficult to pull off. But a good grid can, with some jury-rigging, like this underground parking lot in Bilbao, accommodate automobiles well enough to satisfy modern life, while maintaining the human energy of a city.

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We kept walking and met our friends for lunch at a tapas bar, Café Iruña, crowded with families; we mostly stood at the bar eating, although at a certain point Janet and Liz found room to sit.

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The bar was adjacent to a delightful little park, Las Jardines de Albia, the kind of one-block urban oasis with a little fountain, benches, and two statues of historical figures.

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Las Jardines de Albia

On the north side of the park is one of the few pre-19th century buildings in the Ensanche, a village church from the 16th century (which itself replaced a 12th century church), La Iglesia de San Vicente Mártir de Abando, that the expanding city swallowed up.

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After lunch we were ready for the big event: the Museo Guggenheim, Frank Gehry’s most famous building and the building that launched … the Bilbao Effect.

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Entering the Bilbao Guggenheim

Of the four of us, only Janet had previously seen the Guggenheim, on a trip she’d made with her mother about 10 years ago. I don’t want to write in detail about what Stefanos and Liz thought about the building, since they might write themselves about it and I’m not likely to do justice to their views if I try to summarize them, but I believe I can safely say that the building knocked all of us out. (Stefanos and Liz can correct me if I’m wrong.)

I’m a frequent user of Walt Disney Concert Hall, which Gehry designed prior to designing the Bilbao Guggenheim, but which was built after it. I love Disney Hall and bask in that love every time I attend a concert there, but the building in Bilbao is even more impressive. It’s an exploded and expanded Disney Hall. Disney is one major space, the auditorium, surrounded by a skin of much smaller spaces. That’s form following function, but it makes for a cramped and dark form. A museum building functions differently. The Bilbao program consists of a collection of large galleries, one after another, surrounding the core atrium. Since the core didn’t have to be sound and (largely) light proof as with the concert hall, the central atrium of the Guggenheim could be open and, let’s say, cathedral-like.

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Which makes sense since museums are, when it comes to public and monumental buildings, the cathedrals of our time. Every city has to have one (or more). Compare this picture of the central atrium of Bilbao with my photo above of the nave of La Sagrada Familia. Or compare this picture of windows in the Guggenheim with Gaudí’s windows in the Palau Güell.

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If the key to modernist architecture is architects using the new structural tools that were available to create nontraditional forms, the connecting tissue between an “artisanal” modernist like Gaudí and a contemporary architect like Gehry is obvious.

Stefanos, Liz and I spent a lot of time discussing a particular feature of the Bilbao atrium, a sculptural covering Gehry placed over an elevator (and there is another covering a stairway). In my view this is decorative architecture and is evidence of the distinction between what we call contemporary architecture and both high and post modernism.

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One of the most impressive great rooms in the Guggenheim is the large space that the museum has given over to a series of Richard Serra’s massive steel sculptures. I love Serra’s big sculptures, but I dislike it when they are cooped up inside, such as in the Broad pavilion at LACMA. Serra’s monuments demand the outdoors: the center of a large plaza or, even better, I’d like to see one in a field of wheat. But they work in the big and long space in Bilbao, especially from above. (Much was made of the fact that as an old steel town, Bilbao is a suitable location for Serra’s big works.) Here are some pictures.

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Variations in scale also work well in the Guggenheim. The transitions between the big spaces were nicely intimate, and the “horde” of visitors seemed to find the place quite comfortable.

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We spent a couple of hours inside, touring the building and viewing the collection. The collection is fine, except that it’s more or less the same collection of artists you’ll see in any contemporary art collection in the world. The world is full now of billionaires who want to be the Albert Barnes of their generation, but they don’t have the individualistic perspective that Barnes had. They buy from the same dealers and listen to the same experts, who also tell museums of contemporary art what to exhibit (and, not coincidentally, legitimize the valuations when the collectors on the boards of trustees donate the art and get the tax deductions). Cynically I know that these massive investments in museums to house these works will influence future judgments about was the good art of our era, but nonetheless I expect that future historians of art will be iconoclastic, as historians usually are, and some of this stuff, perhaps a large amount of it, will end up in storage. I ask: who will be the first art historian to demolish the pomposity, excessive self-importance, and implied moral superiority of post-War art that was stripped of content so that it wouldn’t offend corporate collectors?

When we exited the museum, it had begun to drizzle. The building (and Louise Bourgeois’ sculpture “Maman”) looked good wet.

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Finally here’s a picture showing Stefanos and Liz in a characteristic pose: taking a picture of architecture.

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That night we ate at a social club affiliated with the Basque nationalist political party, with entry to it courtesy of a friend of Stefanos and Liz, a massively erudite urbanist and historian. I can’t recount the whole of the conversation, but I remember being impressed that this fellow felt that Spain should host a conference to commemorate the 1900th anniversary of the transfer of power in 117 from Trajan to Hadrian, two Roman emperors who were both Iberians. I mean, why wait for the 2,000th anniversary?

The next morning, Monday, Oct. 30, the four of us walked around the old city of Bilbao, on the other side of the river, the zone of the “seven streets.” Those streets are narrow, as this photo shows.

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When we were there, a teacher was taking a bunch of kids on a walk. Yes, people still live there.

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There were more terminated vistas, but the angles were much different, because of the close quarters.

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To get an idea about how valuable space was in the old city before its expansion, look at this picture, which shows how shops were built into the spaces between the buttresses of a medieval church.

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Here’s a final picture from our tour of the old city.

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Dried and/or salted fish, bacalao, was integral to the history of Europe and, as in Bergen, Norway, that was particularly true with respect to the Basque Country. Basque fisherman were fishing the Grand Banks off Newfoundland even before Columbus sailed the ocean blue, and salt harvested from the waters of the Bay of Biscay was crucial to preserving it. Given how depleted cod stocks have become, I was pleased to see that bacalao was still a staple, as the store window shows.

From Bilbao we were headed to San Sebastián up the coast towards France. Our first stop was in the little port town of Bermeo. By now we were in two cars, as Stefanos and Liz had picked up their rental, and when we arrived there we had the usual comical experiences of trying to find (i) parking, and (ii) each other. But ultimately we managed to eat lunch in a restaurant that Stefanos and Liz found on the second floor of a municipal building. It was some kind of club, but open to the public, where the “burghers” of the town and (assuming the burghers are still mostly men, which seemed to be the case) their wives, meet. It was a wonderfully bourgeois experience (people who know me know that I mean no condescension when I use the word bourgeois). The prix fixe menu included two substantial courses, dessert, and wine, and service was decidedly unhurried. My first course was memorable. I ordered soup, thinking that soup would be relatively light, as for nearly a week I’d been eating way too much, but what arrived was a tureen with easily enough soup for three people. It might have been the best bean soup, heavy with bacon and sausage, that I’ve ever had. Janet had a Basque pepper stuffed with mushrooms and she said it was the best thing she’d eaten on the trip so far. The good people of the Basque Country know what’s good.

It was late by the time our long lunch ended, but we had just enough time before dark to stop in Gernika, better known as Guernica, on our way to San Sebastián. We arrived as a festival was ending, and local farmers and other food purveyors were tearing down booths where they’d been selling their goods. We walked around the center of town, nearly all of which has been rebuilt since the bombing in 1937, since the bombing destroyed nearly all of the city center.

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Rebuilt Gernika/Guernica

One can’t hear the word Guernica without its conjuring up Picasso’s painting. This made me think back to the Bilbao Guggenheim’s collection, and post-War art in general, neutered as it was of political content, made safe for corporations, foundations and plutocrats. Other than perhaps Diego Rivera’s destroyed mural at Rockefeller Center, there’s no painting that better than Guernica marks the dividing line between the days when artists engaged themselves directly in their social, economic and political contexts and a time when museums of modern and contemporary art, their employed curators and the attendant dealers, became the gatekeepers, denaturing art along the way; when expressing political and social ideas in art, or even using art to describe or respond to reality, became passé, and artists primarily expressed their dissidence not with their art, but either by self-destructive alienation or by becoming part of a contrived “counter-culture.”

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Seen in Gernika

By the time we left Gernika/Guernica it was dark. We headed directly to San Sebastián along the coast road. San Sebastián is the gastronomic epicenter of Spain; perhaps, if you believe some experts, of the entire western world. This status is predicated on a top-to-bottom food culture, from the pintxos in a local bar to the highest per capita count of Michelin stars in the world. Part of this is because the Basque Country is so well favored when it comes to food itself: it’s a green and fertile land of small farms that also has a great fishing tradition and a history of trade that brought in foods and flavors from around the world.

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Vegetables and fish for sale in San Sebastián

Another part is cultural: while Basque home cooking by women must by all rights be at the heart of the food culture (I wish I had a way to get some of that!), there is also a longstanding tradition of male cooking clubs (las sociedades gastronómicas) that supported the professionalization of cooking, resulting in a great tradition of (often innovative) restaurants. Food and cooking is everywhere; jumping ahead to the next day, here’s a photo I took of a kids cooking class taking place in front of the big San Sebastián market.

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Liz took this culinary tradition into account when she planned the visit to San Sebastián, booking reservations at two of the great restaurants there, for dinner the night we arrived and for lunch the next day.

Dinner (this was Monday night, Oct. 30) was at Rekondo, a restaurant that describes its food as alta cocina vasca, i.e., “haute Basque cuisine.” And that’s what their food was: we walked into the restaurant and passed on our left a grill over a wood fire, an appetizing way to start a meal. I can’t remember what we all ordered, but it was from a menu that celebrated the ingredients themselves.

The next morning we walked around the town. Our hotel was located near where the big beach, one of the beaches that made San Sebastián a famous summer resort for royalty and those who hung out with royalty, meets up with the avenue that marks the dividing line between the medieval town and San Sebastián’s own 19th century expansion. Since I live in Santa Monica, another city on a beach, also famous for tourism, it was fun to consider the similarities and the differences.

Like Santa Monica, San Sebastián has a beautiful beach, with a walkway and park, and hotels, overlooking it, playgrounds and a carousel (theirs in the park, ours on our pier), and a City Hall nearby. Here’s a picture of San Sebastián’s City Hall, as seen behind a playground in the park:

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That’s a grand edifice, I’d say, for a little city’s town hall. San Sebastián’s population of about 186,000 is about twice that of Santa Monica, but the situations of the two cities are quite different. San Sebastián is the most important city in its immediate, mostly rural, hinterland, while Santa Monica sits on the edge of, and provides the biggest beach for, a metropolis with a population nearly half that of Spain.

One benefit of traveling with architectural experts like Stefanos and Liz is that they can point out architectural history that would otherwise escape my notice. Just across the ocean promenade from the ornate City Hall is, it turns out, one of the treasures of modernism. It’s the Club Náutico from 1929, designed by José Manuel Aizpurúa, at the dawn of modernism, and a building that, as Stefanos explained to me, encapsulates all the rules that Le Corbusier was establishing for the new architecture.

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Club Náutico de San Sebastián

Turning around to look in the opposite direction, here’s a picture of the beach at San Sebastián with the hotels that face it.

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At some point in history someone, probably in that City Hall, had the good idea of declaring a height limit, so that all the hotels would create a uniform (and pleasing) façade facing the beach. The hotels all max out at the same height, which corresponds typically to eight or nine stories. At home in Santa Monica, the height of new hotel buildings proposed along Ocean Avenue, facing Santa Monica’s Palisades Park, has been, for about 10 years, the subject of much controversy. There have been several proposals for towers, at least one as high as 22 stories. As I look at this picture of the wall of hotels lining the beach in San Sebastián I, as a Santa Monican, can’t help but smile—but ruefully. While on one hand the hotels in San Sebastián show that one should not need to exceed nine stories to build a nice hotel, on the other hand the scope of development along the beach there would horrify the opponents of the hotel towers in Santa Monica.

Meanwhile here’s a picture of San Sebastián’s carousel. Aside from its beauty it’s something of a metaphor for urban development in a European town vs. urban development in America: its diameter is much less than the carousel in Santa Monica, meaning it sprawls less, but it’s two stories, meaning it’s more dense.

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The medieval district of San Sebastián is small, about 20 tight blocks. If the best food is in Spain is in the Basque Country, and if San Sebastián is the Basque food capital, then these blocks are the absolute ground zero for gastronomy in Spain. That status is based on pintxos, snacks that by the time lunch is starting are piled up in bars throughout the old city. We had a big lunch planned (more on that coming up) and in anticipation of that none of us wanted to fill ourselves up, but we agreed that in any future trip to San Sebastián we would have to schedule a grazing tour of pintxo bars for one meal.

As for that lunch: Liz in her understated manner had simply told Janet and me that she’d made a reservation at a good restaurant for lunch that day. But that morning Janet and I were doubtful. We had a long drive ahead of us, about six hours to Barcelona, from where we’d be flying back to L.A. the next morning. We were thinking that maybe it wouldn’t be a good idea to have a big lunch and not get on the road until late afternoon. (You know how those Spanish lunches are.) So when we met Liz and Stefanos for breakfast, we were saying that maybe Liz should drop us from the reservation, and that we get on the road.

Fortunately Liz got back to us and said, something like, “well, you know, the reservation is at one o’clock, and maybe you should come and have a first course. It’s going to be good.” She didn’t overplay it, but that was perfect. We kind of looked at each other and said, “Sure, let’s do it. The drive is going to be mostly in the dark anyway.”

That was a good decision. It turned out that the reservation was at the most famous and historic restaurant in San Sebastián, Arzak, the three-star restaurant of chef Juan Mari Arzak, who runs the restaurant with his daughter Elena. (Elena is the fourth generation Arzak to cook in the restaurant.) I don’t follow the world of celebrity or celebrated chefs much, and so I learned all this later, but Arzak, at 75, is the dean of Spanish chefs and the mentor and/or inspiration for the next generation of them.

I respect chefs who make food into something artistic and experimental, but the food needs to stay real, and the everyday holiness of meals with friends and family should never be sacrificed to pretension. Having declared that (somewhat pretentiously, I know), I loved Arzak. To begin with, the staff genuinely wanted us to enjoy what we were going to eat. The first thing the waiter said to us was that they wanted us to try as many dishes as possible, but that they knew this was lunch and we might not want to each so much, and for that reason nearly every dish on the menu was available in a half-portion. They did this because they hoped that each of us would have an appetizer, a fish course and a meat course. This was so solicitous of the customer’s comfort (and also kind to the credit card).

The other aspect of Arzak that I appreciated was that even though the food was elaborate in its preparation and presentation (Señor Arzak has described his cooking as “evolutionary, investigatory, and avant-garde”), the food was fundamentally Basque, made from the ingredients the region is famous for. We had dishes made from sole, prawns, lobster, squid, monkfish, pigeon and what we had learned (at Rekondo the previously night) was a particular Basque favorite, kokotxas, namely the bit of meat at the bottom of a fish’s head. Many of the flavors were exotic, and the food, particularly the amuse-bouche snacks, was artfully presented, but the food was certainly identifiable as . . . food.

It was a memorable meal, shared with friends, and what with the half-portion policy, when Janet and I hit the road around 3:30 (Señor Arzak himself wishes you well when you depart) we were not incapacitated.

Our six-hour drive to a hotel we had booked near the Barcelona airport was mostly in the dark. For some stretches, when I say dark I mean absolutely dark. Janet took the wheel for the middle stretch, which included the road between Zaragoza and the coast, and there were times when looking to the south from the passenger seat I could not see one light. Spain is a big country with some wide-open and empty spaces.

Our hotel was an “airport hotel,” but in a real neighborhood. After checking in we found a tapas bar nearby where, fittingly, the TV was playing a cooking competition show that looked like the Spanish version of Top Chef. For our last dinner in Spain we ordered anchovies, olives, mussels and a lamb stew. Here’s a photo of our meal halfway through our consumption of it. Different from our meal at Arzak, and also delicious.

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The next day we returned to L.A.

Thanks for reading.

 

About a week in Norway

This is an account, illustrated with iPhone photographs, of about a week my wife and I spent in in Norway — Sept. 5-11, 2017. We live in Santa Monica, California, and this blog is usually about Santa Monica politics, but what the hell, I’ll expand my scope. At least this piece is about a couple of healthy cities—Oslo and Bergen.

We flew Sept. 4 to Norway from Boston because we sandwiched our Norway trip into a trip to New England to visit our son and friends. Our flight arrived in Oslo the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 5. (Norwegian Air runs an inexpensive and convenient non-stop service between Boston and Oslo twice a week.) We took the airport train into town, and walked from the Sentrum train station to our hotel on the Karl Johans Gate (“Gate” in Norwegian means street—nothing to do with a gate). Karl Johans Gate is the main, limited to pedestrians, axis running through the center of the city. (The hotel, the Comfort Hotel at 12 Karl Johans Gate, was a comfortable modern hotel situated in back of a pleasant courtyard off the street, with an excellent (and typically sumptuous) breakfast buffet.)

The immediate reason for our trip to Norway was that my wife, Janet, would be giving a paper at a conference at the University of Oslo. Since she’d be tied up at the conference for two days, the day we arrived would be her only day for tourism in Oslo. We figured that if one could only see one sight there, it had to be Munch’s “The Scream.” After having a bite to eat at a bar, we headed to the National Gallery.

Which was fun. It’s not a huge collection, but in any case we only had time and energy (because we were crashing from our overnight flight) to go to the second floor for the 19th and early 20th century works. The works by the Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, and by Picasso and Braque, et al., were good and representative, but what impressed me the most were the works by Norwegian artists I’d never heard of, particularly Christian Krohg. Krohg painted straightforward pictures with a lot of social meaning: of, for instance, a girl dying of tuberculosis, or a girl from the countryside lined up in a police station to be checked for VD so that she could work as a prostitute.

I took some pictures of the visitors in the Munch room.

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As I said, we were crashing, and we returned to the hotel to nap. We had made a dinner reservation on the recommendation of a friend at a fancy restaurant and we didn’t want to fall asleep during the meal. We awoke from our naps around five or so, and took a cab to the Aker Brygge area along the harbor. I wanted to see this waterside development because it’s been redeveloped from a shipyard that closed. Recycling industrial sites is a big thing in Los Angeles, including in Santa Monica, and in Santa Monica we’re always interested in the future of our waterfront, too.

Aker Brygge is slick. My overall impression was to wonder why (and how) the Scandinavians, or at least the Norwegians, do such a better job with modern architecture and urban planning than we do in the U.S. The scale seemed perfect.

Aker Brygge waterfront

In Santa Monica there are many battles about height (often as a stalking horse against any development), particularly along Ocean Avenue. Aker Brygge shows that good new development need not be very tall (although good development can be tall, too). My photograph of the harbor promenade shows buildings of only six stories, with excellent details and high quality materials. From a planning perspective, the designers did good work with ground floor connections to the public realm, and the public realm itself. (I suspect that developments like these, even at five stories, would face opposition in Santa Monica from the same people opposed to taller buildings, but that’s another story.)

From Aker Brygge we took a cab to the restaurant, which is called Ekebergrestauranten, presumably because it’s the restaurant located in Ekeberg Park. The park is now an outdoor museum for modern sculpture, but we only had time to see the sculpture from the taxi. The restaurant is in a terrific 1929 modern building (outside and in; see pictures) that is worth, with the accompanying views, at least a bit of a journey itself. We had a wonderful meal—of fish and game (venison in this case), which became the culinary themes of our Norwegian visit.

Ekebergrestauranten exterior

Ekebergrestauranten interior

The after dinner view from Ekebergrestauranten

Next day, Wednesday, Sept. 6, I was on my own as Janet went off to her conference at the university.

What I most wanted to see in Oslo was their Resistance Museum, which tells the story of what happened in Norway after the Germans conquered the country in April 1940. I’m a Baby Boomer child of parents who came of age during WWII (my father was in the army from 1942-45), and the War has always fascinated me. Not only that, but I can’t resist stories of courage and resistance to tyranny, which is what I knew I would find at the museum.

Fortunately, getting to the museum from our hotel on Karl Johans Gate was the perfect opportunity (notwithstanding the constant Norwegian drizzle-bordering-on-rain) for a walk that took me past some of the major monuments of the city. These included the Parliament building (opposite of which I was pleased to find a statue of my new favorite artist, Christian Krohg), and the City Hall (which as a local politics guy I was pleased to see looked bigger than the parliament).

Christian Krohg

The Parliament building

Between the Parliament and City Hall I stopped at a park where it appeared that a French company was running a demonstration project for a self-cleaning public toilet; they had three units there, in the French tricolor, named Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité.

Oslo City Hall is a major monument—to government itself and to modernity. Every year on December 10 the Nobel Peace Prize is announced there. The design comes from the 30s, and it’s hard not to see affinities with the Italian architecture of the era, which goes to show that there’s not much political content in architecture, or that architecture can be used for any political purpose. But the Oslo City Hall represents democracy, and from the “back” (the side not facing the harbor) it presents “open arms” to the public from the semi-circular plaza surrounding it.

Oslo’s City Hall from the “back.”

The plaza in front of the back of City Hall

The interior of City Hall was closed for preparations for parliamentary elections that were scheduled for the next week, which was unfortunate for me since I couldn’t see the “socialist” murals inside. After reading about them, I’d hoped to compare them in my mind with the Diego Rivera murals I’d been fortunate enough to see in Mexico City in 2016. I missed the murals, but the courtyard of City Hall is decorated with carved wooden bas-reliefs depicting Norse myths, and I liked them. I like them in particular because just before leaving the States for Norway I’d uploaded a book of the myths to my Kindle, and I’d been reading about what I was seeing. Don’t know why I didn’t take any pictures of the bas-reliefs, however.

City Hall’s courtyard (the bas-reliefs surround this)

I walked around to the other side of City Hall, the side that faces the harbor. Oslo in general and this area in particular has many outdoor sculptures. Most of the males were statesmen or artists, or workers in specific trades, while most of the women were naked and either motherly or allegorical (or both).

The front of City Hall, from the harbor

Tourist mimics sculpture

Looking out into the harbor from City Hall to the right is Aker Brygge, where I’d been the night before, and to the left is the Akershus Fortress, a working military base and the home of Norway’s Defense Ministry, but which was opened some years ago to the public as a park. The Resistance Museum is located in the fortress, and so I walked up into it, past a statue of Franklin Roosevelt. During the War the U.S. gave sanctuary to the Norwegian queen and her children (the king stayed in London, “on the job” so to speak, rallying the Norwegian resistance), and in gratitude Norway dedicated the statue of Roosevelt. The king’s decision to fight is the subject of a 2016 Norwegian movie, The King’s Choice, that is being released this fall in the U.S.)

The views of the harbor from the fortress are terrific, as one would expect.

The Oslofjord harbor from the Akers Fortress

I spent more than two hours in the Resistance Museum. I believe I read all of the considerable number of words in English there. I was moved. The museum was established around 1970, 25 years after the War ended, when the men and women of the Resistance could take stock of what had happened and what they had done. The museum, as the creation of both people who were involved in the events interpreted in there and of “objective” curators, is a curious, but inspiring, combination of “another roadside attraction” type exhibits, such as models of particular events and saved artifacts, that reflect the subjective perspectives and collections of those involved in the history, and more typical museum displays about the history.

The Museum doesn’t explain why Hitler invaded Norway and it doesn’t continue after the War to detail what happened to the quislings (including Quisling himself). There’s no larger history told other than that of the Resistance. Norway began resisting the Germans the night of the surprise attack of April 9, 1940, when an alert shore battery 30 kilometers west of Oslo, manned by aged pensioners and new recruits, sunk the German cruiser Blucher, which was full of soldiers and gestapo agents with a mission to seize the royal family and government officials. This was a major defeat for the German navy, and allowed the king and government to escape being captured at the start of the invasion, and to organize resistance.

After the Wehrmacht consolidated its control of the country, the Resistance took many forms. The one constant was the inability of Quisling’s Norwegian version of Nazism to convince many Norwegians that because of their ethnic heritage they should side with Hitler. I loved reading that the sports organizations just shut down rather than cooperate with the Germans, teachers wouldn’t cooperate as well, and that most of the police hightailed it to Sweden, where they trained as a military force to come back and fight when the Allied Command would call on them to do so. (Which the Command didn’t do, because the Allies didn’t want to have to divert their own troops to Norway—instead they wanted the Norwegians to keep the (up to) 400,000 Wehrmacht troops that were in Norway busy there, instead of leaving to defend Germany.)

I only took one photo in the museum—it’s of the sculpture that greets you when you enter, which is a swastika made of confiscated Mauser rifles.

In college a book that influenced me a lot was Mancur Olsen’s The Logic of Collective Action, which mostly deals with organizations like labor unions. The story of the Norwegian Resistance to the Germans is one of collective action writ large. It’s a great lesson for all time.

It wasn’t until after two o’clock that I exited the Resistance Museum, and I walked around the fortress. I popped into the Norwegian Military Museum, but mostly to get a sandwich at the coffee shop. I didn’t spend much time looking at the exhibits, but the Norwegian military is quite proud of the work they do these days in U.N. peacekeeping missions around the world, as well as with NATO.

At that point I was making a decision about what to do that night. My choices were to go with Janet out to dinner with her colleagues from the conference, or to go to see a performance that I’d seen advertised of The Magic Flute at Oslo’s opera house. I was torn. I like Janet’s colleagues (she’s a professor of philosophy), but I figured the first night of the conference they’d all be talking shop, and I love the Magic Flute. Once I realized that the opera house was only a ten-minute (or so) walk from the fortress, I wanted to see the opera house anyway, as it is new (2008), dramatic building designed by the Snøhetta firm.

Plaza at the Oslo Opera House

I decided to let the opera house make the decision: I’d go there and if the box office had a ticket available, I’d buy it.

Which they did and which I did. Which proved to be fortunate, as the production was unique. What the Oslo opera had done was get a well-known Norwegian comedian to play Papageno. According to the couple sitting next to me, the comedian had spent a year training to sing the role, and the production, which had premiered two years ago, had become a hit. Basically, amid all the great music and terrific singing, the comedian played Papageno as a social commentator. Most of his lines (but not all; some he must have adlibbed, based on the audience’s laughter) were translated into English in the titles that ran Metropolitan Opera-style on the backs of seat. His commentary acted as something of a counter-narrative to the weird Masonic and misogynistic text of the opera, without over-contemporizing it. (Agreed that Papageno already has this role in the libretto itself.)

Inside the Opera House

One of the best bits of going to the opera was that I struck up a conversation with the couple sitting next to me, Henrik and Elin. It turned out that they knew well the area that Janet and I would be driving to later in the week, and Henrik promised to send me a route to follow, which he did the next day. More on that later.

Next day, Thursday, Sept. 7, was one of those travel days when little things go wrong, but the results are good. To begin with, I needed to do laundry. I did a Google search and found that there was a coin laundry about a 15-minute walk from our hotel. I figured any 15-minute walk from the center of a city you don’t know has to be good, and set out for the laundry around nine o’clock. I expected to be finished by 11:00, and that I’d still be able to get over to the Bygdøy area by noon or so, to see the (several) museums there.

I won’t go into what a ridiculous travel laundry experience this turned out to be (other than to say that laundry, even coin laundry, like everything else in Norway is very expensive—$20 to wash and dry a small load of clothes!), but the serendipitous part was that not only was the laundry in a charming neighborhood with a good book shop (where I found a good map of southern Norway), but it was across the street from what is functionally Norway’s national cemetery.

Which I learned at the entrance to the cemetery where I found a graffiti’d map on a sign showing where the most famous dead are buried—including Ibsen, Munch, and my new favorite painter, Krohg.

The cemetery is a beautiful place and I took a lot of pictures, not only with my iPhone, but also with my Leica (with black and white film, so I have to wait for those to be processed).

Christian Krohg’s tombstone (and also for his wife, Oda, who was also a good painter)

Ibsen’s tomb

Along with the artists and literary lights buried there, I found a monument to two of the heroes of the WWII Resistance, Rolf Wickstrom and Viggo Hansteen, labor leaders the Germans executed.

After wandering around the cemetery I went looking for a coffee shop. On the way I passed a relic to a not-too-distant but it-feels-like-ancient past—a Kodak film sign. It too seemed like a monument to a deceased hero, namely, film. It’s outside what’s now a health food store, which, alas, does not sell film. I hope the sign stays there for a century or so, as an artifact.

While I drank my coffee I took a closer look at the guidebook. (The guidebook we took to Norway was Rick Steves’. I recommend it, and I’ve borrowed a lot from it for this essay, but I should note that it only covers southern Norway.) I learned that the neighborhood I was in, Grünerløkka, was a 19th century area laid out and constructed during Oslo’s industrialization, and that industrialization had largely occurred along the banks of the nearby Akers River. The river’s successive rapids and waterfalls had been harnessed for the power to run the mills and factories that fueled rapid population growth: Oslo’s population increased from 10,000 to 250,000 between 1850 and 1900. Steves recommended a walk up the river. After picking up my laundry, that’s what I did, instead of going to Bygdøy.

Along the way I passed Oslo’s oldest church, in fact the oldest building in Oslo, from the 11th century, the Gamle Aker Church.

Gamle Aker Church

The walk took me through 19th century neighborhoods that reminded me of elements of Barcelona’s and Berlin’s neighborhoods from the same time period. The river itself was lined with old rehabbed and re-purposed industrial buildings, including a large grain elevator that is now student housing.

Good 19th century urbanism

Grain elevator then, student housing now

You could see where the millraces had been.There’s a statue of four women workers (clothed), looking with some bitterness across the river at an old mill.

Old mill.

Four women mill workers

A street in Grünerløkka.

Also along the river, new developments, once again with excellent contemporary architecture and planning, had been built as infill. I ate lunch (moule frites) at a food hall, Mathallen Oslo, in one of the new buildings.

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New riverside development.

Mathallen

To return to the hotel on Karl Johans Gate I followed the river towards the Grønland neighborhood and the harbor. The river flattened out and became the centerpiece of an urban park. The last photo I took in Oslo was of pedestrians on Karl Johans Gate, behind the national cathedral.

Karl Johan Gate

Janet’s conference concluded Thursday (everyone, including me, went to dinner at an Asian fusion restaurant in Aker Brygge that night) and on Friday, Sept. 8, we picked up a rental car and started our two-day drive across southern Norway to Bergen. We had made a reservation for that night at a historic hotel in a little town called Solvorn. Solvorn sits on a fjord called the Lustrafjord that is a tributary fjord to the largest fjord of all, the Sognefjord. Fortunately these plans came up when I was talking to the couple I’d met at the opera Wednesday night, and Henrik had advised me to take a certain route that would take us over a pass with a glacier. The next day he emailed me a Google Maps link showing the route. The route added an hour or so to what would have been a six-hour drive, and so we probably would not have taken it, and we would have missed one of the best drives ever.

For the route, you travel north from Oslo towards Lillehammer on the E6, which is a major, divided highway when it leaves Oslo, but turns into a two-lane route a couple of hours out of Oslo. At a town called Otta you bend to the west and then later south, and ultimately you head down Route 55, through the Jotunheimen mountains. If you’re familiar with the Norse myths (which I was reading while I was in Norway), you will recall that the giants, with whom the gods were always fighting when they weren’t socializing with them, lived in the Jotunheimen, which is high up off the fjords, above the tree line, barren and cold, with glaciers that remain from the Ice Age.

Map of part of Route 55

The glacier and lake at the highest pass over the Jotunheimen, at the Sognefjellshytta lodge.

As is unfortunately typical for me, I didn’t read about this drive in the guidebook until after we’d completed it, so we missed stopping to see a few things. It turns out that Route 55 is a famous road. It’s known not only for the terrain it traverses, but also for how it does so, with many hairpin turns to bring the road down from the Jotunheimen to the Lustrafjord.

After the hairpin turns, past the town of Fortun, you come across this church in the valley.

Our destination in Solvorn was the Walaker Hotell, which we’d read about in the guidebook. The hotel dates back to 1690 and is now in the hands of the ninth generation of Walakers.

Walaker Hotell, Solvorn

The current proprietor met with guests to answer questions and tell stories after dinner. (Nice guy!) Speaking of dinner, while we’d been driving earlier in the day the hotel called on my mobile phone. They wanted to know if we wanted to reserve a table at the four-course dinner they serve each night. The meal, like all restaurant meals in Norway, would be expensive (about $90 for each of us, not including wine), but we said sure. After all, you only live once (and maybe go to Norway only once) and for that matter, we didn’t know if there was any other place to eat at in Solvorn. The meal was terrific, and served beautifully.

The hotel is located near where the Lustrafjord joins the Sognefjord. These are views from more or less its front yard.

Solvorn’s waterfront.

Looking across the Lustrafjord from Solvorn to Urnes.

Looking down the Lustrafjord towards the Sognefjord.

Saturday, Sept. 9. One reason to stay in Solvorn is that it’s a short ferry ride across the Lustrafjord to Urnes, which is the location of the oldest stave church in Norway. Stave church is not a term I’d known about before planning our trip to Norway, but stave churches are Norway’s special contribution to architecture. They were built in medieval times, after Norway converted to Christianity (around 1,000). There used to be about 1,000 of them, but only 28 remain. The Urnes stave church dates from 1129.

Urnes stave church

What I found most interesting about the stave churches (stave, by the way, refers to the large upright posts in the corners of the structures) was that as unusual as they look, they do not reflect the isolation of Norwegian culture in the Middle Ages, but rather the opposite. They were an attempt in the newly Christianized north to build churches using the Romanesque architecture that was the “International Style” of the time. Norway had a lot of wood and a long tradition of building boats out of wood, and the wood and the skills were used to build the stave churches. The Romanesque style is particularly evident in the round arches that are used throughout.

Decorative carvings at the Urnes stave church

Interior, Urnes stave church

The reason, by the way, that the churches have their evocative black color is that the wood is preserved by applying pine tar every five years or so. The churches, at least the two that we visited, are still in use. (I learned these facts from the tour guide who showed everyone around the church.)

The Urnes stave church is high up on a ridge above the ferry crossing and overlooking the junction of the Lustrafjord and Sognefjord. The views are tremendous, as were the views from the little ferry that we took back to Solvern to get back on our way to Bergen.

View from the graveyard at Urnes stave church

To get to Bergen from Solvorn, it’s possible, if you want to do so and if you time things right, to take a three-hour ferry from a nearby town (Kaupanger) to Gudvangen on the other side of the Sognefjord. This would save a lot of driving and give one the equivalent of a fjord cruise. We considered doing that, but instead opted to drive along the north shore of the Sognefjord and later take a shorter ferry across the fjord before driving onto Bergen. There are three places to take such a ferry, and we chose the first one, from Hella to Vangnes. This was kind of a last minute decision, as we had planned to drive along the north shore of the Sognefjord all the way to Lavik, but we were worried about time. In any case crossing over to Vangness had the benefit of putting us on a road to Bergen that passed through the town of Vik, which has another stave church.

Vik stave church

The Vik stave church is somewhat bigger than the older Urnes church, and features decorative dragons on the roof. They come across as a charming throwback to pagan times (although I suppose Christians also believed in dragons). The Vik church was built by a family, the Hopperstads, and is named after them today (the “Hopperstad Stavkyrkje”). You still see the name Hopperstad on relatively gravestones in the graveyard. The Vik church shows, even more so than the Urnes church, the Romanesque influence. It’s worth remembering that the churches, other than their stone foundations, are entirely wood.

Another interesting feature of the Hopperstad church in Vik is that there is medieval graffiti carved into a wall, which the guide will show you if you ask. It looks like some of the graffiti are “sketches” for the dragons that would be carved for the roof.

Medieval graffiti in the Vik stave church

After Vik, we drove up and over another ridge, above the tree line, before descending with more hairpin turns down to the coastal plain that leads to Bergen.

In Bergen, we checked into our hotel, the Oleana, another well-run modernized hotel in an old building (like the hotel in Oslo). (For those driving into Bergen, note that the Oleana, located centrally on Ole Bulls Plass, does not have parking, but there’s a public parking structure about two blocks away. There is no need to have a car in Bergen, and we didn’t use ours while we were there. To return the car to the rental car company on a weekend, however, would have meant returning the car to the airport and then getting back into town, and that didn’t seem worth it. Also—be advised that there was a large drop-off fee charged for renting a car in Oslo and leaving it in Bergen.)

That night we’d made reservations at a restaurant we’d read about in the New York Times, the Lysverket. It was a “creative chef” type restaurant that featured local ingredients and paid tribute to traditional cooking, yet above all wanted to be a destination for foodies. We liked it well enough, but the food wasn’t particularly special, in our opinions, and the only menu choice one could make was to take either their four- or seven- course dinner. Not sure we’ll go back on our next trip to Bergen.

Sunday, Sept. 10. Bergen is a terrific town. I have a friend, an architect and planner at UCLA, who has always identified Barcelona as the city that got better every century, but from what I can tell, Bergen has the same history. Bergen was one of the five major cities in the Hanseatic League, the German consortium that dominated commerce (and not only commerce) in northern Europe for four hundred years starting in the 13th century. Bergen was where the German traders traded grain and other products for the dried cod (known as “stockfish”) that Norse fishermen caught and produced (primarily from January through March!) in the far north. Stockfish was a major source of protein for Europeans from medieval times up to the 20th century. A byproduct, cod liver oil, was used for lighting until kerosene came along in the mid-19th century. Codfish were to northern Europe much as olive trees were to the Mediterranean.

After heavy grazing at the Oleana breakfast buffet (one thing about Norway is that restaurant meals, along with everything else, are expensive, but if you stay a hotel with a breakfast buffet, you can save one meal, because you won’t need lunch!), Janet and I walked down into the old harbor area of Bergen, known as Bryggen, which is where the Hanseatic traders worked and lived.

The herring section of the Oleana’s breakfast buffet.

Facades in Bryggen facing the harbor. The wooden building on the right is the Hanseatic Museum.

There were many laws and customs against the German traders fraternizing with the locals. The traders mostly came to Bergen as young men to work for a few years, make money, and then return home. Our first stop was at the Hanseatic Museum.

The Hanseatic Museum is contained in a trading building (known as a “tenement”) from the 18th century (a fire in 1702 destroyed the old(er) city), which preserves how the traders lived. These pictures show sleeping cabinets, with sliding doors for privacy and darkness, for an apprentice and for a manager. The latter is a bit nicer and includes what is either a portrait of the wife back home or an 18th century pinup. You can learn a lot about the stockfish trade in the museum—as someone who loves dishes made from dried cod (bacalao in Spanish) I found it all fascinating.

A ticket to the Hanseatic Museum also gives one admission to another old building, the “assembly room,” where the apprentices took classes and where all the traders could eat hot meals (open fires were prohibited in the trading buildings), and to a fisheries museum. We took the shuttle bus the museum provides to the two other museums.

At the fisheries museum we boarded a little boat that took us further out in the harbor to an outdoor museum that celebrates the architectural history of Bergen. The “Gamle Bergen Museum” (Old Bergen Museum) is a collection of traditional buildings that were moved to a park when they otherwise would have been destroyed. In the summer, apparently it’s quite a scene. Actors in period costumes circulate, playing roles associated with the different buildings. There’s even a room, the “60s room,” with modern Scandinavian furniture. I wonder if they have actors for that. The museum closes at the end of August, but the day we were there it was reopened for a national culture day that Norway celebrates with many events for children.

The Old Bergen Museum

Another scene from the Old Bergen Museum.

The “60s room” at the Old Bergen Museum.

On the boat to the Gamle Museum we chatted with a man who was out for the day with his kids. He worked for a fish company, and he told us the names of his favorite fish restaurants in Bergen. That night we went to the one that was open on Sunday, Bryggeloftet & Stuene Restaurant, in the Bryggen, and we ate well.

Next day, we flew back to Boston from Bergen’s small and efficient airport, via Iceland.

We hope to return.

Modern Bergen (and Norway): still a crossroads.

 

Six years of process, and then . . . boom!

At the City Council meeting last Tuesday night on Santa Monica’s Downtown Community Plan (DCP) the ironies abounded. As planning staff has told us many times, the DCP is the result of six years’ of process involving countless public meetings, along with studies and other work by consultants. The Monday night before Tuesday’s meeting itself featured about 150 community members testifying on the plan. Yet to make the biggest decisions about the plan, on the most difficult, contentious and significant issues, the City Council had only time for frantic deliberations as Mayor Ted Winterer pushed them to take “straw votes” as if they were on a life-and-death deadline.

So much for deliberative representative democracy.

Not only that, but the debate over the very most contentious and significant issue—the amount of affordable housing to require for-profit developers to build—was based on a new financial analysis that had been assembled in admitted haste over the previous weekend in response to a recommendation from the Housing Commission to expand the required amount of affordable housing to 30% in some circumstances, a percentage more than what any other jurisdiction in California requires. This analysis, by the City’s regular consultant, Paul Silvern, had not been released to the public for comment or even given to the councilmembers prior to the meeting. The first they heard of it was Silvern’s oral presentation Tuesday night.

Based on this analysis the councilmembers voted to require an on-site affordable housing requirement of more than 20% on any market-rate apartment building greater than 50 feet in height, reaching a 30% affordable requirement at 70 feet in height. I’d say that these numbers are unprecedented, but in fact they would bring Santa Monica back to where it was in the early 1990s, when it had a 30% requirement. For those without long memories, the results of that requirement were (i) no housing got built, and (ii) housing developers sued the City and won, and the City had to revise its zoning so that housing could be built.

While anti-change forces in the City have been chipping away at that 1990s pro-housing zoning for 20 years, it’s the DCP that is finally replacing it entirely. Ironic for a plan that is touted as a “housing plan.”

But I want to be fair to Paul Silvern: I said his analysis was what the council used to justify going to 30%, but he himself, as passionately as I’ve ever heard him speak, advised the council not to go there. He did not believe his analysis of theoretical and marginal financial feasibility at the 30% level provided justification for requiring it.

And I also don’t want to be completely negative. The council did some good things at the meeting, building on good work from the Planning Commission and staff.

For one, the council voted to remove parking minimums for developments downtown; this was in fact a “forward to the past” move, since the City back in the 1960s removed parking minimums for the core area around Third Street, but 50 years later it’s still considered a brave and radical move.

For two, the council approved expanding significantly (though not as far as would have been justified) the scope of administrative review over housing development. It was telling, however, that some councilmembers wanted to get back every bit of advantage this gave housing developers by assessing new burdens on the construction of market-rate housing. This is where the impetus to increase the on-site affordable housing obligation to 30% came from.

The council also approved reasonable development standards for the three large hotel sites downtown, gave more incentives to 100% affordable housing developments, and increased allowable development in the “Neighborhood Village” area south of Wilshire (although this last improvement will probably be moot considering the increased affordable housing cost put on developments above 50 feet in height).

But getting back to housing, some readers might be wondering why I, a proponent of building affordable housing, object to piling affordable housing requirements on market-rate housing. The reason is that we need market-rate housing just as much as we need affordable, because if middle-class households can’t find new housing that they can afford, particularly in historically middle-class areas like the Westside, then they will cannibalize existing housing occupied by low-income people. This is what is happening all over California, as reported in the papers (including now the New York Times) nearly every day. Housing and neighborhood activists decry gentrification, but discouraging investment in housing is what drives increases in housing costs.

For so long as we have more people who don’t qualify for affordable housing than who do, which is, by the way, a good thing, then, by definition, or simple math, we need more housing for people who don’t qualify. We need that housing to be built, and if we unreasonably burden developers who build it, or owners of the property it could be built on, we won’t get it.

It’s not like there shouldn’t be inclusionary housing. We also have a value that we want housing for different incomes to be mixed together or in proximity. And in a rising housing market, there are some developer profits that can be tapped for this purpose, if developers are given sufficient entitlements to build and there is certainty in the process. But we have to recognize that more investment will be attracted to housing development the lesser the burdens on it.

Ultimately the money for building necessary affordable housing must come from the whole of society.

Thanks for reading.

The DCP on its final stage

After, in words taken from the staff report, “nearly six years in development” (not too much longer than it takes to get approval to build an apartment building!), Santa Monica’s Downtown Community Plan (DCP) is finally approaching finality: the Santa Monica City Council will hear public testimony at a special meeting Monday night, debate the DCP Tuesday night, and vote on it in two weeks.

I wrote five blogs on the DCP in May when the Planning Commission was reviewing it, and I will try to focus my reporting now on the changes in the prior draft the planning and other commissions, and staff, now recommend, and what they are leaving to the council to decide.

There’s bad news and good news.

To start with a little bit of bad news, it appears that not even one board or commission recommended including in the DCP’s history section mention of Arcadia Bandini de Baker as one of the founders of Santa Monica. Maybe the Commission on the Status of Women should review the DCP, too.

But enough with identity politics. I’ll get right into some good news. The DCP is still fundamentally flawed, but it will be less fundamentally flawed if the council follows the Planning Commission’s recommendations, and even less so if the council builds on them in ways that staff is now suggesting.

To recap what I wrote in May, the DCP represents a retreat from extremely successful policies the City adopted in the 1990s, policies that gave residential development big financial advantages over commercial development. Inexplicably, for a plan that its backers call a “housing plan,” the DCP drastically reduces the edge residential development has over commercial in terms of allowed square footage (“FAR”), while increasing even more drastically the relative cost of residential development over commercial development. While the City has financial modeling that purports to show that residential development under the DCP will be feasible, there’s no analysis that shows that developers will in fact build residential development, when it will be much simpler and less costly to build suburban-style commercial projects like low-rise offices or retail.

The Planning Commission made an effort to address this issue. The commissioners did not make recommendations relating to the substantive issues of the relative costs and benefits of developing housing versus commercial, other than some incentives for 100% affordable projects, but they did recommend simplifying the approval process for all housing developments up to certain size limits. The commission recommended that any housing project on up to two standard lots (meaning up to 15,000 square feet of land) be subject only to administrative approval. Similarly, in the “Transit Adjacent” zone where Tier 3 projects are still allowed, they recommended increasing the threshold for requiring a development agreement from 60,000 to 90,000 square feet.

These recommendations by the Planning Commission are significant, not the least because they have encouraged planning staff to do some planning of their own. On pages 49 and 50 of the staff report, where staff gives its recommendations to the City Council, staff recommends that the council consider additional incentives for housing development.

It’s taken “nearly six years,” but it was heartwarming to see in the staff report recognition that making it administratively easier to build housing would be “similar to the procedural incentives that were formerly in place for Downtown in the 1990s that resulted in the production of approximately 2,500 housing units.” (Let me add, because it’s important, that if these downtown properties had been developed for commercial uses, which, given Silicon Beach would likely have happened, this would have resulted in more than one million square feet of commercial, mainly office, development. Development that would have generated orders of magnitude more traffic, particularly rush hour traffic, than the apartments that were built at the double-FAR granted to residential development.)

I’d be shouting hallelujah to the rooftops, but for the fact that the DCP still contains policies that dramatically favor commercial development over housing, policies that the Housing Commission, believe it or not, wants to make even worse, by piling more affordable housing requirements onto market-rate housing.

The DCP will never be as favorable to housing as the 1990s zoning (which, by way, produced a lot of affordable housing). The staff report makes the unfounded claim that the DCP is different, and presumably better, than the 1990s zoning because the DCP has development standards that will make projects “complement Downtown’s existing character” (for my skepticism about that, see this blog) as well as make downtown vibrant, walkable and welcoming to a diverse population. The problem with this rationale is that the 1990s rules have been proven to produce these results—it’s only wishful speculation that the DCP will do the same.

IMG_3703

Part of Downtown’s existing character that the DCP would have complemented.

The Planning Commission also did good work adding incentives for 100% affordable projects, but only in some zones downtown. The incentives should apply throughout downtown. Even more important, incentives should extend to market-rate projects, too. The plan could encourage housing for all income levels and in particular onsite inclusionary housing by the simple measure of not counting the square footage of onsite affordable units against FAR limitations. If developers are saving government from having to provide the public good of affordable housing, why not at least give them free air to build it in? (You could still have a maximum cap on FAR.)

Regarding the zones downtown, the DCP has too many of them. Downtown is not big and there are not as many differences within downtown as the DCP would have you believe. In the six-minute walk I take most days of the week from my office to my dad’s apartment for lunch, I pass retail, offices and apartments, all mixed up. This is good. The DCP overcomplicates what downtown Santa Monica is all about. It’s full of distinctions without differences. It micromanages.

Hopefully the City Council will take into account the recommendations from Downtown Santa Monica, Inc. (DTSM), the City-created entity that manages downtown. Who knows downtown better than DTSM? No one, and DTSM’s recommendations, on pages 31-32 of the staff report, include equalizing (more or less) the development standards among the “Neighborhood Village” (NV) and “Bayside Conservation” (BC) districts and the Transit Adjacent (TA) district. In the staff report the staff opens up the possibility of increasing height and FAR standards, presumably in the NV and BC, but except for a few pros and cons doesn’t provide the council with much in the way of analysis.

DTSM also knows the retail situation, and knows that it makes sense to allow small offices on the ground floors of mid-block apartment buildings. Other than on the boulevards, I don’t see any reason to favor retail over offices in ground floors. DTSM also makes a small but important point, which is that it makes sense to allow retailers to easily redesign frontages.

Thanks for reading.

The DCP and the lingering impacts of the Great Recession

The question I ended my post with on Saturday was why would Santa Monica enact a Downtown Community Plan (DCP) that makes it easier to build commercial development than housing? Keep in mind that this is taking place during a local, regional and statewide housing crisis, and following a period of 30 years during which something like nine million square feet of commercial development were built in the city, but only a couple of thousand units of housing were built to house the many thousands of new employees.

But first, before getting into that, consider what’s happened in the rest of the city since the enactment of the LUCE in 2010 and the new zoning ordinance in 2015. That history gives a preview of what will happen downtown if the City Council enacts the DCP as currently drafted. The LUCE and the zoning also turn out to favor commercial development, and, sure enough, properties expected to be developed with housing in industrial areas and along the boulevards are instead being developed, or re-used, as one- or two-story commercial projects.

The two biggest examples are in the old industrial area. One is the “Pen Factory” being developed on the Paper Mate site. There the developer Hines had proposed to build 499 apartments to go along with 400,000 square feet of offices and other commercial development. This was too much office, and not enough housing for the big site, but Hines had followed the LUCE standards in developing its plan.

Council Member Kevin McKeown opposed the Hines project and supported the Residocracy referendum that ultimately killed it. He said that Hines would come back and negotiate a better project. McKeown’s intentions were sincere, and I had hoped that he’d be right, given that during the LUCE process he was one of the few who argued against planning staff that the LUCE’s development standards for the Bergamot area called for too much commercial development and not enough housing.

But after the City Council revoked the project’s approval, Hines didn’t renegotiate. They sold the project to new developers who are converting the factory into about 215,000 square feet of offices. Gone are 499 units of housing, along with all other benefits the City negotiated for, including new streets and a sidewalk on Olympic Boulevard. This fiasco would never have happened if the LUCE had not favored office development in the area in the first place—the developer would have had to build housing and would have planned accordingly.

Less well known, but equally a disaster, is what’s happening, or not happening, with the nearly three-acre property on the 2800 block of Colorado known as the Roberts Center. Under a development agreement that site was going to be developed with 231 housing units and only about 60,000 square feet of commercial. The project would have been coordinated with projects on either side of it so that, among other things, Pennsylvania Avenue could be extended through them, breaking up a super block, and helping traffic flow in the area. Now the property owner has abandoned the DA process and is simply rehabbing the existing buildings for new commercial uses. Again, no housing and no community benefits.

Since enactment of the zoning ordinance in 2015, the same thing is happening on the boulevards. Developers are downscaling and building commercial. Properties at Wilshire and Berkeley, and the old Jerry’s Liquor site, that were intended to be sites for apartments will instead become two-story mini-malls, featuring restaurants that will generate more traffic than the apartments would have. The developers needed no special approvals for these projects as they were subject only to administrative approval.

Downtown, where a few projects, under pre-DCP standards, are moving forward after City Council approvals, we can nonetheless see the future in the two-story commercial building recently completed at Fourth and Broadway. On this site there was going to be a mixed-use, primarily residential building, and a plan was approved. But when the developer had to change those plans, to add parking, the project came under new fees charged by the City. The developer opted to build a two-story commercial building, which was also only subject to administrative approval.

IMG_3794

The commercial building at 4th & Broadway built instead of housing.

The City, with the analysis from HR&A Advisors that I discussed in my previous post, has tried to show that housing development under the DCP will be feasible, but the City didn’t ask HR&A to compare the costs, risks, and profitability of residential development against those of commercial. Nor does the DCP take into account how few developers are willing to attempt developing housing in Santa Monica.

Housing development is not for the faint of heart. Two individuals, Craig Jones and Neil Shekhter, are responsible for most of the housing built in downtown Santa Monica over the past 20 years. It’s telling that they both ultimately got into trouble with their lenders. It’s a risky business. Unlike Jones and Shekhter, most developers and (especially) their lenders avoid risks. Given Silicon Beach there’s no risk now and plenty of gain in building one- and two-story retail and/or office buildings, which fly under Tier 1 and only need administrative approvals. It’s these projects that the DCP makes easy—precisely the projects that the rhetoric in the DCP says we don’t want.

So, back to my question, why have Santa Monica’s planners pushed a pro-commercial development plan for downtown? (By the way—I don’t doubt their sincerity. They believe they’ve come up with a “housing plan.” That’s part of what makes this so aggravating.)

It’s not simply a surrender by the planners to the don’t-change-anything crowd, although no one likes being yelled at. It’s true that the anti’s don’t want any more housing built, but housing is their target because housing is what has been primarily built since Santa Monica shut down major office development in the ’90s. (And hotels, but they don’t like them either.)

No, the reasons are deeper and go back to the City’s response to the Great Recession, and the disastrous final years of the LUCE process. Up until the recession hit in 2008 the LUCE was moving towards being a sensible plan that left the neighborhoods alone, continued the slowdown on office development, and concentrated considerable housing development in three commercial zones: downtown, the boulevards, and the old industrial areas near Bergamot Station.

But the recession created a financial crisis for the City. Suddenly I started noticing a big change in the City’s attitude towards the LUCE. The narrative was now all about how Santa Monica was a creative city, and our creative businesses were so important and wonderful, and how good it would be to have more of them. What do you know, but the planners started telling us that new development around Bergamot should be 60 percent commercial, mostly “creative office.”

Why this change? It was obvious, and not really hidden: residents cost the City money for the services they need, while commercial projects pay more taxes to the City than they consume in services. Imagine City Hall as a big cash register. Let L.A. build the housing along the Expo line, and provide the services. Santa Monica will provide the jobs and collect the taxes.

It was around then that the double FAR for housing downtown got thrown out. For five years the planners have been drafting this anti-housing DCP without explaining what was wrong with the old development standards and administrative approval processes that actually got a lot of housing built, creating the downtown they say they admire and want to build upon.

Thanks for reading.

 

How to bust a housing boom and a housing boon: more on the DCP

I’m sure readers are trembling with anticipation after I ended my last post with this cliffhanger: aside from drastically reducing the advantage that residential development in downtown Santa Monica had over commercial development in terms of FAR, how otherwise would the Downtown Community Plan (DCP) discourage housing?

The answer in great part has to do with the higher “community benefits” burdens the DCP places on residential compared to commercial development. This disparity is most impactful with respect to affordable housing. While the whole of our society has failed to provide affordable housing for all income levels, it’s not a problem the whole of our society wants to solve. In particular, people who have housing tend to want future residents to pay for both their own housing and the housing of those who can’t afford market-rate housing.

In Santa Monica many residents want developers to pay for affordable housing out of their profits. They believe these developers, who are riding a boom fueled by low interest rates and high rents (a boom that, based on history, is sure to bust), are making too much money. (No surprise, but many of these same residents voted a few years ago against a small tax on the profits property owners (who already pay low taxes because of Prop. 13) will make when they sell their properties, the values of which have been inflated by the housing shortage.)

“Inclusionary” housing requirements can be a good thing, provided that they are not so onerous that they prevent housing of all income levels to be built. The housing market is fungible, and a shortage of housing for the majority of people who do not qualify for affordable housing inevitably drives up the cost of housing for all. This, in a vicious cycle, increases the number of people who qualify for affordable housing (because rents increase) even if they have full-time jobs.

Purportedly to increase affordable housing development, the City of Santa Monica has conducted “nexus” studies (required by the Supreme Court on constitutional grounds) and feasibility studies, to maximize how much affordable housing the City can make developers, both residential or commercial, either provide or subsidize. The burden is nearly 10 times higher on residential than on commercial development.

Under the DCP, a developer of a Tier 2 commercial building will be required to pay an “an affordable housing commercial linkage fee” equal to 23% above the base fee required under the City’s affordable housing production program. These fees currently range from just below $10 per square foot for retail or creative office to a little more than $11 for regular office. Add 23 percent, and you’re at about $13 per square foot.

As opposed to commercial development, the affordable housing burden placed on market rate housing is not expressed as a per-square-foot fee. Instead, it’s a requirement to build the housing, either onsite or, in limited circumstances, offsite. Depending upon the size of the project, between 15 and 25 percent of the units in a Tier 2 residential project must be affordable. How much does this cost?

The numbers are in an analysis that the City commissioned to show that housing development under the DCP would be financially feasible. The City’s consultants, HR&A Advisors, found that on a site where the height limit was 60 feet, a developer could build, on a typical 15,000 square foot, double-lot site, a project with 45 apartments in 48,571 gross square feet of development. (Under the old zoning I discussed in my last post, such a project would have nearly 60 units — so much for the DCP being a “housing plan.”)

For such a development, assuming the developer could find a suitable site within 500 feet, the developer could satisfy the affordable housing obligation by building 12 affordable units offsite. HR&A analyzed the project on that basis. According to HR&A, these units would cost the developer $5,964,121. Based on the project’s gross square footage of 48,571, that works out to about $122 per square foot of development. (I should note that developers have commissioned an analysis that says the costs are higher than HR&A says, but for these purposes I don’t need to get into that.)

So there it is: $122 vs. $13 per square foot. The affordable housing tax on a square foot of residential will be $109 per square foot more than that on commercial development, representing about 20 percent of the cost of development. To put it in other terms, the cost of affordable housing for a 1,300 square foot three-bedroom unit, the kind that the City says it so wants developers to build for the next generation of Santa Monica families, is $158,600.

What about that half-point of additional FAR, in HR&A’s example an additional 7,500 square feet, that the residential developer would get? Won’t that pay for everything?

Do you want to buy a bridge?

If the developer of HR&A’s prototype provided the affordable housing on-site, in which case the obligation would be for nine affordable units, the 7,500 gross square footage bonus would not even cover the floor area required for the affordable units, let alone be a source of profit. Leading to a question: why is the floor area for onsite affordable housing counted against the FAR limit? If the City wants to get affordable housing built, and wants developers to pay for it, the least it could do is not apply the affordable units against FAR limits (or, for that matter, maximum heights).

Possibly if the developer builds the affordable offsite, as modeled in the HR&A analysis, the profit from the 7,500 bonus square feet would compensate at least somewhat for the cost differential between residential and commercial, but the availability of suitable sites within 500 feet of a given project or, in fact, anywhere downtown, is so limited that it’s not worth running the numbers.

The lopsided burdens on residential development don’t end with affordable housing. The per-square foot parks fees charged on commercial development are magnitudes lower on a square foot basis than the per-unit parks fees charged on residential. Infill housing is well known as the most efficient development model for energy usage (codified as such by the state’s climate change laws), yet the City piles on transportation costs (an onsite shared bike requirement?). Infill multi-unit housing also provides for the most efficient use of water, but now the City is adding a new water conservation requirement and/or fee. (Water is a regional resource, yet the City fetishizes its local ground water, much of which, of course, comes from wells in Los Angeles. If it were serious about reducing water consumption, sooner than make it more difficult to build water-thrifty apartments and condos it would require homeowners to replace their lawns with drought-tolerant landscaping.)

I hope by now it’s evident that the DCP is far from being a “housing plan.” I fear it would bring Santa Monica back to where it was 25 years ago, when the courts found that the City’s policies unlawfully prevented housing from being built. I hope it doesn’t come to that.

This post also will end with a cliffhanger, for my next post: why is the City doing this?

Thanks for reading, and have a good Memorial Day weekend.

Downtown Santa Monica ain’t broke

There are good ideas in the Downtown Community Plan (DCP): ideas about the role of Santa Monica’s downtown, about nurturing community in “our town” with more and better housing and local-serving retail, about more “complete streets” that are more friendly to pedestrians, about more quality architecture and more adaptive reuse, about more travel options. There is a lot of more in the ideas.

But ideas are not planning. The planning in the DCP, mostly in the form of numbers and procedures, runs counter to the ideas. The planning is about less; less of everything, that is, except commercial development.

To understand the impact of the DCP one needs to understand the planning regimen it is replacing, but the DCP doesn’t describe or compare itself to the existing rules. You have to know the history yourself.

Key to that history are plans the City enacted in the 1990s that have been extraordinarily successful at producing the kind of downtown—a walkable neighborhood complementing a vibrant economic center—that the DCP says it wants. The DCP itself acknowledges the role of the ’90s planning; in its historical overview, it says that in the 1990s: “Zoning Code amendments provided floor area ratio (FAR) incentives for residential uses to encourage housing development for a mixed-use Downtown. As a result, the number of Downtown residential units doubled over the next 15 years to approximately 2,800 units.”

But the DCP doesn’t describe what those amendments were or what they did. (This is not the only gap in the narrative. The most important event in downtown’s recent history was the conversion of the Third Street Mall into the Promenade, but the Promenade isn’t even mentioned in the DCP’s discussion of the “historic planning context.” It’s all of a piece with the plan’s general reluctance to acknowledge how urban downtown Santa Monica is.)

So, what happened in the ’90s? The City Council, responding to the success of the Promenade and to a court decision that forced Santa Monica to increase housing development, radically incentivized the building of housing downtown. The council did this by turning the commercial zoning downtown upside down: the new zoning, though still called “commercial,” allowed on a given lot twice as much housing development than whatever commercial development was allowed.

To apply numbers to this, the zoning in the downtown commercial zone (“C3”) generally allowed a 2.0 FAR—meaning that square footage of development (“floor area”) on a parcel could equal up to 2X the amount of the square footage of land). The base FAR along Sixth Street was less (1.5), while near the Promenade (in the “Bayside Commercial District”) it was more: mostly 3.0. The double FAR for housing applied in all the zones. Also in response to the court decision, the council made it easier to build housing by relaxing what had been extreme requirements for on-site affordable housing.

The double FAR worked like this: where a developer of two contiguous lots (15,000 square feet) (a typical configuration) could build 30,000 square feet of commercial development under a 2.0 FAR, a residential developer could build 60,000 square feet. The density bonus, combined with steadily rising rents (a product of the regional housing crisis as well as increasing job growth on the Westside), made building housing downtown a better investment than commercial development. Developers even found it profitable to build, without subsidy, apartments that were deed-restricted to be affordable to moderate-income households.

As the DCP acknowledges, the ’90s zoning was a rousing success, resulting in a new neighborhood of about 5,000 residents. Largely led by housing development downtown, the City as a whole greatly improved its housing production. While between 1990 and 2000 the City had virtually no housing production (a net increase in units of 0.2%), between 2000 and 2010 the City had a 6.4% increase, which was better than the City of Los Angeles (5.7%) or the County (5.3%). (These figures come from the City’s most recent general plan housing element.)

For the most part, the new apartments downtown were built in five, sometimes four or six, story buildings with local serving retail or offices on the ground floor. The impact of these apartments has been entirely positive. As I have often mentioned, my mother and father moved into one of them, on the 1500 block of Sixth Street, when the building opened in 2003. We’ve watched the neighborhood blossom. If you doubt this, spend half an hour walking around the blocks emanating from the corner of Sixth and Broadway, especially in the evening or on a Sunday morning when the neighbors are out and about strolling, or waiting to get into restaurants. Here’s a photo of the Sunday brunch scene outside the Blue Daisy Café, Sixth and Broadway:

Blue Daisy on a Sunday

Sometimes I wonder if opponents of downtown development are just jealous of all the fun people who live there have.

It’s like . . . civilized? (How many times have I heard anti-development folks in Santa Monica ask plaintively, “Why can’t Santa Monica be more like Europe?” or in the next breath ask disdainfully, like you’re some kind of idiot for liking apartments and transit, “What! Do you think we’re in Europe?”)

So you ask, if it ain’t broke, why fix it? Good question. Downtown Santa Monica was doing quite well, thank you, before the City embarked on this five-years-going-on-infinity process to make it better. Sure, the ’90s planning could be improved (someday I’ll get into that), but the DCP moves in the wrong direction.

The biggest problem is with FARs. The DCP has for practical purposes removed the residential advantage that was so fruitful. Instead of doubling the FAR for housing, the DCP gives housing developers minor increases in FAR, while generally increasing allowable FARs overall, making commercial development more competitive.

While the basic FARs in the old downtown C3 and C3-C zones ranged from 1.5 to 2.5 (which would, again, be doubled for residential), the basic FARs for the corresponding DCP areas (the Transit Adjacent (TA) and Neighborhood Village (NV) areas) under Tier 2 (which largely corresponds to the same level of development review) are higher, 3.0 for TA and 2.75 for NV. A residential developer gets only a 0.5 bump (to 3.5 and 3.25 respectively). (By the way, I never heard a convincing argument from planning staff or anyone else for what’s wrong with developing housing downtown at a 4.0 FAR, a level that under the DCP can only be reached in the TA zone, and then only with a development agreement.)

Clearly, compared to residential development with its trivial 0.5 bump, commercial development in the TA and NV districts is going to look much better under the DCP than it did under the 1990s zoning. But that’s not the half of it. To truly understand how the DCP discourages residential development, you need to look at the approvals process and the other burdens placed on housing, which will be the subject of my next post.

Thanks for reading.